The NY Times picks up on Israeli assertions that President Bush and Prime Minister Sharon had an understanding allowing for natural settlement growth.
On one hand, Ethan Bronner's report is a maddening read because Israeli and US officials dispute each other, and also because they're all unidentified (anonymous sources get my goat, but that's a separate issue).
However — to his credit — Bronner links to a recent Elliott Abrams commentary acknowledging US allowances for natural growth. Abrams wrote in April:
But those settlements exist, and there is no point in debating whether it was right to build them. President Bush largely resolved the issue of the major settlement blocs in a 2004 letter to Sharon. He stated a truth that Palestinians have come to recognize: "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion. It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities."
So the real issue is not past settlement activity but the demand for a settlement freeze. . . .
For the past five years, Israel's government has largely adhered to guidelines that were discussed with the United States but never formally adopted: that there would be no new settlements, no financial incentives for Israelis to move to settlements and no new construction except in already built-up areas. The clear purpose of the guidelines? To allow for settlement growth in ways that minimized the impact on Palestinians.
See the full text of the Bush-Sharon letters they exchanged and you'll understand why Israel might not have disengaged from Gaza in the absence of some kind of quid pro quo.
It is certainly legit to question whether the letter and its understandings were tentative or not, and whether new leaders in Israel and the US are bound by — as Abrams puts it – "guidelines" that were "never formally adopted." It's also fair to ask journalists to shed a little more light on why sources like Bronner's only talk off the record.
Given the not-so-secret letter and Abrams' commentary, I don't understand how someone like former US ambassador Marc Ginsberg can emphatically deny the existence of understandings – whatever they were – as "hogwash."
Anyone who who wants to deny there was an understanding — and is in a position to know — should go on record too.
UPDATE June 4: While I continue waiting for the MSM to quote US officials on the record, Dov Weisglass, explains the evolution and context of the settlement understandings. Weisglass was Sharon's chief of staff.